Friday, 29 June 2007

Money, Money, Money. (IT IS funny to live in a rich mans world)

Another eventful week as a builder has just passed, seeing me work at yet another different site. This time I worked on a millionaire’s holiday home on the coastal summer resort of Marstrand (Note: photos below not taken by me).

Marstrand is the beginning of the Bohuslan coast, the region between Gothenburg and the Norwegian border. Just like the Southern Archipelago (see previous post), the area is dotted with traditional fishing villages that have been converted into summer resorts.
Marstrand occupies its own island that can only be reached via a short ferry trip. It’s a very old town, with lots of heritage-listed buildings, cobbled streets, and a large castle as its centrepiece. It has always been a popular holiday spot for the rich and famous, most notably Sweden’s King Oscar II. Further up the coast, Ingrid Bergman once had a holiday house too. Today it hasn’t changed, and is still the exclusive domain of the super rich.

The house I was working on had just had a Kr 20 million (A$3.6 million) renovation. In total the whole property was valued at Kr 50 million (A$9 million). It was not the most lavish house I had ever seen, but it was certainly the most extraordinary. The owners had gone to a lot of trouble to maintain a traditional fishing village aesthetic. All the furniture was antique, and slightly dilapidated. The floorboards were slightly cracked and uneven. All the electrical appliances were modern, but retro looking in design. From a distance, the stove looked like it needed to be stacked with wood and lit manually, but actually had a modern hot place inserted on top, and oven inside. There was incredible attention to detail, with even coat hooks and door hinges made to conform. Instead of light switches, they had porcelain knobs.
Despite the house’s rustic appearance, it actually cost an incredible amount of money. On the day I was there, the plumber was installing antique-looking steal taps and shower fittings, with porcelain handles. They cost Kr 75,000 (A$ 13,000)!
But the best bit is that this was just a holiday house. The owners stay here for three weeks every summer, and the rest of the year its completely empty! Imagine what they spend on their regular house. It’s the sort of wealth and extravagance that borders on the obscene. It is just incomprehensible to me how people can live like this.

I don’t think the urge for class warfare is ever stronger than when your literally on your hands and knees scrapping tiny specs of paint off the floor for minimum wage, while your employers are spending the equivalent of six months wages on shower fittings. I was very tempted to assist them with their efforts to develop a rustic old-fashioned ambience by relieving them of their plasma TV and DVD player. (But I didn’t!)
In the end I just had to remind myself that there are many people a lot worse off than me. Such as these guys.

Photos from the Southern Archipelago

Here are some photos from Gothenburg's Southern Archipelago. These islands are very close to the city, accessible via public transport and make for an easy day trip. They can only be reached by boat, and most are completely car-free. Traditionally these islands have been home to fishing villages and retirees, but more recently they’ve been taken over by summer holiday homes for wealthy Gothenburgers. Some people even live here and commute to Gothenburg each day for work.
Even in the middle of summer, when the area is teeming with tourists, the archipelago is large enough to still find small quiet places. There are so many islands I can always explore somewhere new. This is where I often go when I've got a day off and the weather is good.

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Only in Sweden

A man in Sweden has just been granted disability payments from social security based on the fact that he is addicted to heavy metal music. He has successfully argued that this ‘disability’ means he is discriminated against in the workplace as many employers won’t tolerate loud music, or employees missing work because they slept in recovering from a rock concert the night before. So rather than look for a job, he is now free to live his heavy metal lifestyle, and the Swedish government will pay the bills. If you don’t believe me, read the full article here.

I know I say this in every blog entry these days, but I still can’t believe what Swedes can get away with. Surely it doesn’t get better than this.

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

Another Day, Another Kronor

Tomorrow is Midsummer, one of the biggest days of the year second only to Xmas. In most countries, a public holiday would suffice. But this is Sweden, where public holidays are so common you could hardly call them special occasions. So a day like this gets two public holidays!
This is also my final week at Vasastaden. As we’re nearing the end, the bosses from Astor have been paying more regular visits, and so our break times have started to correspond closer to what they’re supposed to be.
Yet everyday I still see new instances of Swedish slothfulness. For example, I’ve noticed no one seems to use the toilet during one of our designated breaks. After all, why would you waste a toilet break when you’re already on a break? Far better to wait until you’re back at work and take an extra break. My favourite is the smoking break taken five minutes before finishing for the day.
Yesterday, Peter told us with great relief that we’d been given a week’s extension, “…so we didn’t need to panic anymore.” Panic? If the past three weeks have been panic, than what will things be like when we ease back into regular work pace? Two hour breaks after every 15 minutes of work?
Chris reckons if he started up his own company and brought a dozen of his old work colleagues from the US, they’d get things done so much quicker than the Swedes that he’d have TA out of business in no time. I know Americans like to boast, but I find his claim believable.
Once again I have to stress this is not unique to the construction industry. It appears to be a part of Swedish mentality. Last weekend I offered to help Ankie’s father Jan-Erik, move apartments. He had hired a big truck, and was moving a distance of 500 metres. It required two trips, and should have taken three to four hours. Instead, I was there all day and we still didn’t finish it all. The slow work mentality is great when you’re getting paid by the hour, but not so great when you’re giving up your free time. The whole day Jan-Erik kept stressing that “we had to take it easy” and insisted on regular breaks. His theory is that life is too short to stress and worry, and that it is far better to do things at a leisurely pace. “I think we must have time to smell the roses”, he often tells me ever since he first heard an English phrase to describe his philosophy. I felt like telling him that my idea of living isn’t sitting in half furnished apartments drinking instant coffee from plastic cups, and that I’d far rather we got this moving done as quickly as possible so I could enjoy the rest of my weekend. But as usual I only ever think of saying these things long after the occasion passes.

PS. I didn't take the photo above. I don't know where it was taken, but it's the sort of thing a Swedish worker would do.

Saturday, 9 June 2007

Photos of Gothenburg

Here are some photos of my new home town. The first one is of The Avenue, the city's showpiece street, and location of one of the site's I've been working on. It was taken from the top of the street, and includes the Poseidon stature, the closest thing Gothenburg has to a recognisable landmark. The other three photos were all taken around the canals in Gothenburg's old town.

Imorgon, Imorgon!

Broadly speaking there are two very different stereotypes of Europeans. On the one hand, there is your Southern European with their relaxed view of life, best demonstrated by the Spanish 'Manana, manana' (tomorrow, tomorrow) mentality. The laid-back sorts, who would rather take a siesta or sit around drinking wine, than make any effort at actually doing their job. On the other hand, in complete contrast you have the Northern Europeans, dedicated to an earnest humourless life of efficiently and hard work. Of the two stereotypes I had always assumed Sweden would fit closer to the later rather than the former.
But since gaining employment here six weeks ago, I’ve been forced to radicaly revaluate this perception. Swedes actually share more with the laid-back Italians than the industrious Germans. At risk of sounding like a right-wing radio shock jock, there must be something about a strong welfare state that makes people lazy.

The past fortnight has been a busy one, seeing me transferred to three different sites. As stated in my last blog entry, I was first sent to The Avenue. However after a few days I was sent to a site in Onsala (a very posh part of town near the beach), and then only a day later to my current site, Vasastaden. After my first site in Hammarkullen I was already under the impression Swedes didn’t work very hard. But from each of these proceeding sites, I’ve only had this suspicion confirmed.
When getting a lift to Onsala, Marco (the other guy working there) intentionally took the back roads rather than the quicker, more-direct route via the highway. By the time we got there, it was nearly time for our first break. “Look, it’s Friday,” Marco told me as way of justification, “It’s been a long week, so I think we should just take it easy today.” Just as we were due for our lunch break, Marco than says, “Would it be okay with you if we left early today, and just didn’t tell anyone.” We agreed to work another hour, before leaving and signing off on eight hours anyway. “It’s Friday!”, claimed Marco.

I was supposed to be in Onsala for a week, but on Monday I was transferred to another site in Vasastaden, back in the city centre. There is only one other person working there, Peter. He immediately started the day by complaining about how much work needed to be done, and how little time we had. He then told me he had to get rid of the last person because he didn’t do any work. Initially I wished I were back in Onsala, anticipating four weeks of high-pressure backbreaking labour. But I needn’t. If Marco knew how to slack off and cut corners, Peter takes it to a whole new level. Despite all his complaining about workloads and deadlines, he works with absolutely no sense of urgency. Even when he moves, he doesn’t so much walk, but reluctantly inch forward. Some of the guys I worked with in Hammarkullen and The Avenue liked to push the limits by slyly extend their breaks by 5-10 minutes. This is kid’s stuff for Peter, who likes to take an extra 15-20 minutes. We spend nearly as much time in the barracks drinking coffee than we do on the actual construction site.
Last Wednesday was a public holiday for Sweden’s National Day. (I should point out that this is the third public holiday we’ve had in the six weeks I’ve been working. And we’re due another two, Midsummer’s Eve and Midsummer’s Day, in two weeks time.) To mark the occasion, on Tuesday Peter decided we should just go home at lunchtime.

This isn’t just something that is epidemic in the construction industry either. One of my teammates at the Berserkers works at a furniture removalist, and regularly talks of 30-minute jobs being extended into a whole 8-hour shift. Ankie also has friends who complain about being ‘stressed’ and ‘exhausted’ having worked a 40-hour week.

The best part of this leisurely working culture is that it is easy to impress employers. Anyone who can turn up and complete a minimum workload within reasonable time wins Employee of the Month. But it makes me wonder about the people who get sacked. This is the second time now I’ve been brought in to replace a sacked employee. If even someone as lazy as Peter gets rid of you on the premise you’re not pulling your weight, you must be as lazier than Jabba the Hutt!